Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Chruch Discipline and Revival

Last week I posted about preaching on the church during a series of “Revival” meetings, arguing that if we truly want to see revival we must begin with the church. I also commented on preaching on church discipline in one of the services. While in my experience it seems church discipline would be the least likely topic considered for such a setting, it seemed to me to be one of the most obvious topics once I thought about it. I remembered hearing that a return to discipline in churches in the past had at times been a precursor to revival. So I went back to Greg Wills’s excellent book Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900and found the quotes below. Before going to the quotes, however, let me earnestly recommend this book. It is very readable and provides many useful insights to our current church situation.

This first quote makes the point in and of itself:
“Pastor T.H. Stout took the occasion of a revival to inculcate the doctrine [of church discipline]. The members of Bethel Baptist Church became zealous for discipline and excluded two offenders. Stout recounted the result:
Very soon, a perceptible improvement was seen in the church. Brethren began to take up their crosses. They met and conversed on the condition of Zion, confessing and bewailing their coldness. Brethren, discipline is the life of our churches. We have no right to look for the blessing of our precious Savior unless we ‘come out from the world.’ Be ‘ye separate,’ says God. . . . May not many of our churches be incurring the displeasure of the ‘Great Head of the Church’ by laxity of discipline? During July…the church was greatly revived. . . . Quite a number of brethren prayed [publicly] who had never done so before. . . . Twenty-four were added to the church; 12 by experience and baptism, and 12 by letter.’
Discipline brought revival.” (p. 36)
Then, these other quotes I also found helpful:

“Through discipline, they would, moreover, sweep the nation, for they believed that God rewarded faithful pruning by raining down revival.” (p. 8)

“After the Civil War, Baptist observers began to lament that church discipline was foundering, and it was. It declined partly because it became more burdensome in larger churches. … Urban churches, pressed by the need for large buildings and the desire for refined music and preaching, subordinated church discipline to the task of keeping the church solvent. Many Baptists shared a new vision of the church, replacing the pursuit of purity with the quest for efficiency. They lost the resolve to purge their churches of straying members.” (p. 9)

“Baptists saw discipline as a source of spiritual revival. A church with no discipline was no church. ‘When discipline leaves a church,’ Baptist theologian John L. Dagg contended, ‘Christ goes with it.’” (p. 33)

“Mississippi Baptist Elias Hibbard, who worried about excessive discipline, conceded its benefits: ‘I am aware that discipline when exercised in a proper manner is the life of our churches, and often precedes the blessings of the Almighty.’” (p. 34)

“Even with ‘the elegant preaching and eloquent prayers and the splendid appearances,’ Baptists reasoned, ‘no church can prosper spiritually if there is no discipline. . . nothing is more essential to church prosperity than the maintenance of faithful discipline.’” (p. 35)

“one of the churches that [Jesse] Mercer planted continued to intone that ‘correct
discipline is the life of the Church, without it the Church is despised by the world, shorn of its power & will soon fall to pieces.’” (p. 35)

“Mercer believed that ‘most of our church difficulties grow out of neglected church discipline’ or discipline improperly administered.” (p. 35)

These are useful words for our day. Let us affirm the great desire to see renewal in the church in our day. We do indeed long to see God move mightily among His people renewing the church and converting the lost. However, all the talk about this is surely futile (to the point of being silly) if we are not willing to conform ourselves to His word, to take one of the clear steps he has provided us for the pursuit of holiness. The call for a return to church discipline does not (or ought not) arise merely from historic nostalgia, legalism, exclusivism or rash youth but for a desire for the salvation of souls and a renewal of the church- those things which will bring glory to God.


Adam Winters said...

Good words for the good Dr. Wills. Now he's actually my boss too, as I had the opportunity to become one of his research assistants this month.

And it is amazing that discipline disappeared so quickly in Baptist life whereas it had once been so common and central. The introductory articles in Mark Dever's Polity book by Dever, Wills, and Mohler also are a great read on early S.Baptist life in America.

Joel Maners said...

We often hear "church discipline" and think that we use it for the sake of the Church's name or God's reputation. "What will people think if they see brother so and so doing that?" A more scriptual view of it is that discipline is for the sake of the one being disciplined. The account of the church discipline administere at the church in Corinth bears this out. Perhaps we need to see discipline as more an act of love than an act of righteous indignation. Naturally, as the love within a church grows, the more distasteful and unacceptable sin will become and the more members will exercise the love necessary to help one another avoid it.

Ray Van Neste said...

Fine point Joel. The basic problem is that our view of the church is not really based on the bible. 1 Cor 5 makes it clear that discipline is motivated by love for the offender. Paul says do this "so that his spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus" (v.5). Of course the reputation of the church and of God are also proper motivations, but when love is missed all esle is skewed.
The problem is that we do not think of the church as a community which cares for one another but simply as a place you go to hear sermons.

Adam Winters said...

I would almost prefer that we think of church discipline as a hybrid of church discipline/church restoration. The goal of discipline in Corinth and in Matthew 18 is to win our brother back to the Lord. Church discipline is necessary because the holy fellowship has been compromised in some way that must be dealt with for the spiritual unity of the Church to be restored. Of course, the ultimate goal is that the brother/sister in sin will repent and seek reconciliation and restoration with the local church.

And it works! Just ask my friend, Ray Whitlock, he has an amazing testimony:

ross said...

Don't mean to stir up trouble, but...This is also a non-baptist point of view. As long as the Eucharist (the Lord's supper) and baptism remain hollow symbolism among the non-sacramentalism of baptist life, what "meat" does disciplining members even have? The best that one has to offer is a mild rebuke appealing to the humility and wisdom of the offending member. Most of restoration of the member is taken care of this way and is certainly the gentlest way. But when prolonged stubborness to repent remains in the disobedient, what discipline does the protestant non-sacramental church possess? Excluding them from Eucharist means nothing because deep down, it is nothing. No baptism is hollow because they're saved by grace anyway. Excommunication simply sends the person to another self-contained protestant church already devoid of unity and the loss of unity isn't on the radar screen for that person. I'm suggesting that "church discipline" along with the unity and harmony of the church are aspects of church life that remain crippled due to the natural fallout of the Reformation. I have to have tough conversations with members at times and they almost always work out well. But, to me, "church discipline" is a spanking that nonsacramental baptist leadership is unable to deliver seriously. It seems like a threatening parent that continues to count "1-2-when I get to three you better..." Is there any real restorative bite at the end of it all? What are the consequences for the stubborn child really? Always love to hear back what you have to say since it's always good.

Ray Van Neste said...

Hey Ross,

Sorry for being so slow in responding. I appreciate your comment- content and spirit. It is of course true that the fact that an excommunicated church member can easily join the church down the road seriously undermines the work of discipline. I do not however see this as the natural result of the Reformation. Nor do I see a sacramental view of the ordinances as essential to church discipline.
The ‘bite’ to church discipline is not directly tied to Communion. While being barred from the Table is certainly part of the consequence of excommunication (and it is sometimes held up as the key aspect) that is not what the Scripture holds up as the dreaded consequence. In Paul’s most thorough discussion of this in 1 Cor 5, the ‘bite’ is being put outside the protection of the church and handed over to Satan. This is not tied to our view of the ordinances/sacraments. If we understand discipline rightly, excommunication is no mild rebuke but a declaration that the person excommunicated is not a believer but remains in his sins and is under the wrath of God. Of course to one in rebellion against God this may not mean much. If one can treats this glibly, that is simply further evidence that such a one is not converted. If, however, we are in fact dealing with a true believer who has been incredibly obstinate such a declaration will mean much and will eventually bring repentance. This, I think, is the bite Paul connects with excommunication.